Sunday, February 01, 2009

The Year 1952

1952 was an interesting year. Seven years after the end of WWII, America was still at war in Korea (until July, 1953). But, the outlines of post War society were starting to firm up. In particular, some writers were beginning to sense that the trajectory on which America was headed was not necessarily utopia. Two books that I just read, Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury and The Space Merchants by Frederik Pohl and Cyril M. Kornbluth, are extraordinarily prescient in this regard. One should couple these two with a recent article in the New York Review of Books on "Google and the Future of Books."

To refresh your memory, in Fahrenheit 451, the protagonist Guy Montag, is a fireman who burns books, since they have been determined to be dangerous to the functioning of this future society. It is highly likely that Bradbury was influenced by the spate of book burning that occurred in Nazi Germany at the end of the 30's. Of note is that both immersive television (whole wall or the ultimate wide screen) and tremendously silly advertising hold sway in this dystopian society. The ideas that occur in classic books are felt to be dangerous when held up against the society of the future. What is disconcerting is how much that future society resembles ours!

It is the same with The Space Merchants where it is business, or more to the point the advertising business, that has taken over the dystopian (by our standards) world. There are a number of allusions to large companies that are very powerful (such as Bendix) that now no longer exist. There is even security firms (Brinks and Pinkerton) that resemble our Blackwater.

How can it be that so many writers from that era (Orwell wrote 1984 in 1948) are attracted to the dystopian future? How is it that we did not listen to them in the least and plowed right on screwing up the planet and its people? I guess it is the ability of the human being to believe in anything, even the most outright fantasies.

The other issue that is touched on in these books and the NYRB article is, interestingly, the fate of books. I like to read. But I think that the habit of reading is rapidly disappearing in the population as a whole. Some children do aspire to read; but most are much more interested in Wii.

For thirty years (until 2006)I subscribed to Pediatric Clinics of North America. This was an essential resource in my practice. I confess that I have not looked in the 120 books of this series that I have since that time. If I have a question, I google it.

Thirty years ago if one had something to say, one would try to get it published. Now, we write it on a blog. What we write on the blog goes off into cyberspace. The fact is, as I have discovered in the past few years, there is incredibly interesting discussions (e.g. here and here) floating around in this world. No one, even the old Neuromancer himself, saw this coming.


Julie Heyward said...

You say, "How is it that we did not listen to them in the least and plowed right on screwing up the planet and its people?"

You don't mean "we"; you mean "they". Because "they" definitely don't mean "you" when "they" talk about "we" -- so it's only fair that "we" don't mean "they" when we talk about them. (Though I suppose you could be one of them; what do I know?)

Stalin and Mao thought the world was just about perfect. They are "they" and "we" are definitely not they.

Of course, if we're all guilty all of the time, it's game over. But if there is a line, then there are gradations and good and bad and we get to have great books, movies and art about it all -- and blogs, too.

(I mean we we, not wii, or whee.)

Dr. C said...

Thanks for your comment as always. Hopefully I am not one of "them" thought I'm not sure who is who these days.
Your mention of Mao and Stalin brings up the ever present question of exactly what is free will. Unfortunately, historical writing on this is so enmeshed with the Christian (Hebrew) God that not much good thinking, at least in my opinion, is out there (e.g. Leibniz).
Need to get back with Felix on this one.

Julie Heyward said...